Why Are Many Christians Obsessed With the Rapture?

Viktor Vasnetsov’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1887. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Viktor Vasnetsov’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1887. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Christians have historically been fixated on the end of the world. The reasons are more complex than they appear.

The world did not come to an end on September 6, 1994. Nor on May 21, 2011, or October 21 of that same year, though Harold Camping had said in each case that it would. As I sit typing in the year 2016, the world is still rotating on its axis, spinning 19 miles per second around the sun.

Like so many Christians who came before him, Camping was possessed by the idea of predicting the end of the world, and talked ceaselessly about it on his radio show at Family Radio Network, of which he was president. Listeners contributed to what became a $100 million campaign to convince the world of the May 21 judgment day (known in Christian theology as the Rapture), when Jesus would take all his believers to heaven. Like many would-be prophets, Camping moved the target each time he was wrong. After the October 2011 date passed, he just let it go. Even prophets can get confused.

Today, if you want to know how close we are to the world’s end, all you need to do is check the , a frequently updated scoreboard of 45 factors that point to the nearness of the Rapture. (A score of over 160 indicates it’s time to “Fasten your seat belts.” We are currently at 181.) The popularity of the Left Behind series and songs like Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” among certain evangelical communities indicate an ongoing cultural fascination with End Times and a willingness to help usher them in by proclaiming how rotten things are in the world right now — a key tenet in Rapture theology, as in life, is that things usually get worse before they get better.

Why are Christians so obsessed with the end of the world? Mostly for the same reasons Christians are obsessed with anything: It’s in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of terrifying, cryptic prophecies about the End Times: “The two kings, their minds bent on evil, shall sit at one table and exchange lies,” the prophet Daniel says. “But it shall not succeed, for there remains an end at the time appointed.” (Two kings exchanging lies sounds ominously like the plot to Game of Thrones.) Then, in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.” The Second Coming of Christ involves its own vocabulary; words like “Postmillennialism” and “Pre-Tribulation” get tossed around in End Times crowds like confetti at a parade.

Some Christian denominations are more likely than others to be interested in eschatology. Southern Baptists will talk with you about the End Times over coffee and donuts after a Sunday service; Episcopalians will talk about politics, sex, or money with you before they’ll wander into end-of-the-world territory. It’s inherently creepy stuff, the idea that the world will end not because the sun has burnt out or a comet has destroyed the Earth but because an omnipotent being wills its destruction. But it’s on our collective minds: As of 2010, Pew reported that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will “probably” or “definitely” return to Earth by 2050.

Judgmental Christians are easy targets for ridicule and disdain, and, to be sure, Christians have perpetuated some of the worst (and silliest) ideas about the end of the world. At the same time, most religions have at least some rather outré ideas about the way the world will end. For many Christians, spreading the word about the Rapture is an act born of genuine concern.

“The urgency was that the Rapture could happen at any time,” says Melisa Blankenship, a San Francisco-based church information manager who attended Calvary Baptist Church in San Mateo, California, in her youth. One night, Blankenship’s church held a special service to screen the film A Thief in the Night, the first in a series of films about the Rapture. In the film, young Patty Jo Myers wakes up one day to find her family gone along with millions of other people, and has to live through the Tribulation, a time period referred to in Daniel 7, during which war, famine, and other plagues ravage the Earth and kill most of those who remain. Blankenship remembers being “terrified” watching the movie as a seven year old. As an adult, though, she can see what motivated the pastors at her church: “In a weird way, I think it was compassion on their end.” If you were convinced the world was going to end in a fiery war zone and you could take your loved ones with you to heaven, wouldn’t you want to do the same?

Talking about the End Times is also an urgent way of sharing the gospel of Jesus, “promot[ing] a strong emphasis upon evangelism of the lost,”according to the Pre-Tribulation Research Center. Run by Thomas Ice and Tim LaHaye (the latter of Left Behind fame), the Pre-Trib Research Center acts as a clearinghouse for Biblical prophecy scholars to share their work on the Rapture and their interpretation that the church will be raptured before the Tribulation. “The most unloving thing you can do is not [share] the gospel,” says Ice, who also disputes the wisdom of predicting a specific date and time for the Rapture. “There is a lot less date-setting now than there has been in the past,” he says.

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Laura Turner

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